“I’ve had a great life, thank God,” said legendary showman Leo Brennan. “It’s been an eventful one.”
Leo was speaking on Tuesday night as part of the Ionad Naomh Pádraig’s new project, “Cuisle Sean-chais – Abair Leat”, in which they invite a prominent person from the Gaeltacht community for a traditional oíche airneál. It’s a casual and intimate evening, enabling the guest to tell stories from their life and engage with the people who attend.
And if the guest is Leo Brennan, you know music will play a big part. Leo sang a number of songs from his repertoire in an evening that was part story-telling, part sing-song, and totally engaging.
Leo Brennan and his wife, Baba, received the county’s highest honour in 2005, when Donegal County Council conveyed on them the Freedom of County Donegal in recognition of their contributions to Donegal music and culture.
Leo has entertained generations of audiences, including years with the Slieve Foy Showband and performances for local and international guests at his pub, Leo’s Tavern in Meenaleck. The couple taught the old Irish songs to their talented children, who brought their musical influence to a global audience through the music of Clannad and Enya, as well as through their individual projects.
Leo spoke of his parents, Minah and Harry, who started young Leo in his life of music. Harry was a Cockney piano player, singer and comedian known as Happy Harry. Minah played the drums and Leo also recalled her playing the mandolin.
“They entertained in all the parochial halls for years,” Leo said.
“I went on tour with mum and dad, and took part in the concerts as well,” Leo said. His father would say to him, “Sing any song you know,” and accompany him on piano.
“He’d say, ‘You’re on tonight,’ and that’s it,” Leo recalled.
The accordion player used to leave his accordion in the hall at the end of the night to go off with his girlfriend, Leo said. So in the morning, when Leo would visit the hall he began to pick up the accordion and play away.
One night the accordion player didn’t show and Leo said to his parents, “I’ll play with you.” He played “When I Grow Too Old to Dream” and another waltz.
“I played the same tunes for about a half an hour,” he said, to laughter from the ionad audience. The band had their new accordion player. The family band also included Minah on drums; Leo’s sister, Rosemary, on accordion and piano; his brother, Lala, for Lawrence, on trumpet; and Tony, learning the saxophone.
“Next thing we were away playing for dances every night from 9 o’clock at night until 3 in the morning,” Leo said. They’d get 30 bob a night for each member and a pound for transport.
Leo met Baba at a dance and was smitten. They married in Carlingford, Co. Louth, and marked their 60th wedding anniversary in February of this year. At their Dundalk reception, Leo had a steak and Baba ordered stuffed tomatoes on toast. The steak was tough. “So the last 60 years, every year on our anniversary, we have stuffed tomatoes,” Leo said.
Máire Rua Ní Ghallchóir was the special guest at an ionad evening earlier this year, the first time they used the centre’s recording studio to record the proceedings.
Leo’s evening was recorded as well, and Máire Uí Chomhaill, ionad bainisteoir and a niece of Leo’s, said the recordings will become part of the ionad’s folklore archive.
Máire Rua was also in the Tuesday audience.
“We’ll never have another band like the Slieve Foy,” Máire Rua said. She recalled cycling to Creeslough to a Slieve Foy dance. It took about an hour, she said, adding, “It was no bother.” There was always a stack of bicycles outside the hall when a dance was on, Leo said.
There was a Slieve Foy gig in Earl Street in Glasgow, and when the band arrived early to set up, the queue already seemed to stretch for a mile. When they played the large St. Margaret’s Hall in Glasgow, “half the people didn’t get in,” Máire Rua said.
Leo’s stories Tuesday night were punctuated with songs. He sang a song he learned as a schoolboy, Óró mo Bháidín; and another, “Red is the Rose.” He sang, “The Garden Where the Praties Grow” and a rousing version of “Phil the Fluter’s Ball,” a favourite of his mother’s. He dedicated a sweet and moving rendition of “Danny Boy” especially for Baba.
“I could sing for a week – at least a fortnight,” Leo said. The crowd in the Ionad on Tuesday night would happily have stayed to listen.